Foam rolling is the practice of using a foam roller to massage your muscles. The goal of this myofascial release technique is to increase range of motion (ROM) and improve recovery after a workout. This sounds great in theory, but does it actually work? In this blog, we’ll discuss what modern evidence says about foam rolling and explain how to correctly incorporate this practice into your workout routine for maximum benefits.
What Does Foam Rolling Do?
Increases Flexibility Short-Term
Foam rolling prior to a workout can increase flexibility of the targeted joints and muscles for about 10-30 minutes. This provides you with a window to move your body through a greater ROM, resulting in superior performance. Check out studies such as these (1, 2, 3) to see the evidence for yourself!
Foam rolling after a workout (either immediately or later in the day) has been found to improve recovery. This research concluded that 20 minutes of foam rolling immediately after a workout, as well as 24 and 48 hours after, significantly reduced feelings of muscle soreness. This then helped decrease some of the impairments typically associated with muscle fatigue, such as diminished power and endurance. Similar results were found here and here. Foam rolling also increases circulation throughout your body and helps your nervous system relax, both of which further facilitate recovery.
Myths About Foam Rolling
Foam Rolling Inhibits Muscles
Many individuals avoid foam rolling out of fear that doing so will prevent their muscles from activating properly when exercising. This myth, however, has repeatedly been debunked in research, such as studies found here and here. Foam rolling does not cause muscular inhibition or negatively impact your athletic performance.
Foam Rolling Produces Long-Term Changes
The general consensus is that foam rolling does not produce long-term changes in flexibility. This means that the ROM gained by foam rolling will only last for 10-30 minutes. This 2022 meta-analysis, however, which analyzed the results of many different studies on the subject, concluded that consistent foam rolling over a minimum of 4 weeks may increase joint ROM in healthy, young individuals. These changes only occurred in certain muscles/joints, though, indicating that not every body part will respond the same way. Given the mixed evidence and the limitations of this meta-analysis, we suggest continuing to treat foam rolling as a means of gaining short-term flexibility.
Foam Rolling is Required
Another myth about foam rolling is that it MUST be done in EVERY warm-up. In reality, stretching can be just as effective as foam rolling in promoting short-term improvements in flexibility and performance. This study compared the effects of a warm-up that consisted of a combination of foam rolling and stretching to warm-ups that included only stretching or only foam rolling. It found that all produced similar results, so don’t stress if you miss a rolling session! Incorporate it into your warm-up if you feel that your body needs it, not because you think you have to.
How to Foam Roll Properly
Position the foam roller under the desired area. Plant your hands and/or feet on the floor and push off them to roll back and forth. Roll the entire muscle, from top to bottom and all sides. Give a little extra attention to particularly tender areas. Remember to breathe as you roll to reduce excessive tension.
When foam rolling prior to working out, aim for no more than 1 minute per muscle group/body region. Longer than this has not been found to provide any additional benefits in a warm-up. When foam rolling after a workout, you can spend a little more time rolling each muscle group. Aim to accumulate 10-20 total minutes across all affected body regions.
Appropriate Intensity Level
Physical therapist, strength and conditioning coach, and owner of “Squat University” Dr. Aaron Horschig notes that we should “chase discomfort, not pain” when foam rolling. This means you should select a foam roller that is an appropriate firmness for you specifically (more on this below). You should also only apply as much pressure as needed to feel discomfort without being in intense pain.
Type of Foam Roller
Soft – Individuals new to foam rolling should start with a softer, lower density foam roller. This Gaiam Foam Roller is pliable yet durable and a great option for beginners and/or those looking for a less intense experience.
Firm – Softer foam rollers do not provide enough compression for everyone. Firm, high-density foam rollers, such as this Amazon Basics Foam Roller, are the next most intense option.
Textured – Some foam rollers have a textured, bumpy surface to help target specific trigger points within the muscles. The 321 Strong Foam Roller is an amazing choice for those looking for another higher intensity option.
Vibrating Foam Roller – Vibrating foam rollers combine the therapeutic effects of vibration and massage into one, electronic device. Some research suggests that certain muscle groups respond better to vibration foam rolling than traditional non-vibration foam rolling. This well-reviewed FITINDEX Electric Foam Roller is one of the more affordable options within this category of rollers.
*We receive no benefits by promoting these brands. We just enjoy sharing good products!
Areas to Foam Roll
You can foam roll pretty much anywhere! Your back, lats, shoulders, chest, biceps, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, outer thighs (abductors), inner thighs (adductors), quads, and calves are all fair game. Smaller areas, however, like the neck and feet, would be better targeted with a tennis ball or lacrosse ball. Certain areas, such as the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and quads, can be rolled simultaneously or one side at a time. When done one at a time, you can cross the uninvolved leg over the one being rolled to add more pressure (demonstrated in the “Glute” photo below). Techniques for several commonly targeted muscle groups are demonstrated below:
Final Thoughts on Foam Rolling
Foam rolling is an excellent tool to both gain flexibility before a workout and enhance recovery after one. It probably won’t improve your ROM long-term, but it also won’t negatively impact your performance when done properly. Remember not to spend more than 1 minute per muscle group when rolling during a warm-up. Additionally, always adjust the intensity so you can achieve sensations of discomfort, not pain. Ask your coach for guidance on how to target tricky spots not covered in this blog. Happy rolling!